With the release of Ramez Youssef’s debut, the feature-length documentary The Profession (2019), which had its premiere at the Sharm Al-Sheikh Asian Film Festival (SAFF, 2-8 March 2019), the independent production house Hassala Films – founded by filmmaker Hala Lotfy in 2012 – has proved itself yet again.
Indeed the story of the film’s production illustrates the way Hassala works. For years before the company was founded, Lotfy and the crew of her award-winning Coming Forth By Day (2012) struggled to fund the film.
“We worked for years with no financial support until we were finally able to obtain a fund from the Arab Fund for Arts & Culture [AFAC]. It was small but enough to finish the project,” Lotfy explains.
“But the effort and time we had spent left us with a fundamental lesson: that apart from the financial limitations faced by filmmakers in Egypt, there is also a lack of knowhow in terms of how to produce a film. There are no expert executive producers, who should share with directors the responsibility for making a film happen. We had gained some experience in the making of my film so we decided to spread that knowledge. The idea is for each director whose film Hassala produces to play the role of executive producer in another director’s film, then the experience can be passed on. It’s not obligatory but the option is there for those of us who want it.”
The concept behind Hassala is that a network of filmmakers are willing and able to make each other’s dreams come true will go a long way towards realising projects. They have managed to produce Nadine Salib’s Um Ghayeb: Mother of the Unborn (2014), Ahmed Abdalla’s Night/exterior (2018) and Little Eagles (2016), another debut documentary by Hassala cofounder Mohamed Rashad, who was on Lotfy’s crew. In the latter, Lotfy acted as executive producer. When it was time to make The Profession, it was Rashad who did the honours.
“It was my first experience as a producer and I am not sure how well I did,” Mohamed Rashad says, “but I was keen on helping my friend Ramez Youssef to realise his dream.”
The Profession explores the mysterious world of Mohamed Ali Street belly dancers who used to perform at weddings, tracking the everyday life and stories of their male contractors.
“Ramez Youssef is a friend and a colleagues. We both found our way to cinema through a two-year filmmaking workshop at Alexandria’s Jesuit Cultural Centre. But I also liked the idea of showing the male perspective the role of men in the belly dancing community. It is about social and cultural contradictions but also about a vicious circle of exploitation where victims are victimising others, poor men using poorer women and at the same subjecting them to the wider society’s sexist mores.”
According to Rashad, an independent producer is different from a commercial one. “My aim was to help the director to make his film from his own point of view. It was not my name, or my position in the market that mattered but my duty to facilitate his job. So my role was to find the best ways to implement his vision.”
It took six years to make The Profession, starting with the research stage which was the most challenging part. Youssef says he was initially inspired by an old beggar woman in the Alexandria neighbourhood of Al-Ibrahimiya: “She looked strange to me with tonnes of makeup on her face and a cigarette between her lips asking people for money. Later I found out she used to be a belly dancer and a singer in her youth.”
The woman passed away shortly before he started his project and there were few leads in Alexandria, so he decided to move to the historic centre of belly dancing in Cairo.
“It took me a long time to find people who were ready to appear in a film, and to forge good relations with them.” Finance was yet another obstacle. Finding a financial source for the film production was another challenge, “We spent our own money on the research stage and with the help of Rashad we were able to secure a small fund for the production stage, and we saved some of it for post-production.”
The crew members too belong to the independent scene: cinematographer Mohammed Syiam is a filmmaker, co-cinematographer Layla Sami an actress and director, assistant director Ahmed Rahal a screenwriter and photographer and editor Islam Kamal a member of Fig Leaf Studios, another production house.
Rashad says they managed to persuade such professionals to work for very little money without compromising quality. But Youssef came out of the experience with an intense awareness of a filmmaker’s challenges.
“Financial limitations are a big issue. You can make a film with the help of your friends but you cannot go on making films this way. Because your friends who are also filmmakers need to make progress in their own careers and have an income to live a normal life. And these are very difficult times.”
Though he agrees, Rashad stresses successful and inspiring cases like Night/exterior and Mohamed Hammad’s Withered Green (2016). “But not every filmmaker can do find alternatives to funding,” he adds, “which is scary. These methods might not be applicable in every film. For sure this will put our films on a certain level in terms of production.” These are issues he has postponed thinking about while he writes his next film.
Lotfy concedes that financial limitations deprive independent filmmakers of the opportunity to be productive, negatively impacting the film industry, since they result in a given film taking six-seven years to make: “When you see hundreds of short films and only one or two long films produced every year by young filmmakers, you realise the problem is not lack of talent but limited opportunities.”
Limited film funds are one problem: “As independent filmmakers we end up competing with each other for little bits of money based on the funders visions. And this is shameful.” Distribution is another: “The state television does not buy our films. And if it is a documentary film no other television buys it.”
Nor are there small-time businessmen who want to be cinematic adventurers like those of the 1980s, Lotfy goes on, since legal obstacles have made production effectively the monopoly of big companies: “Under such hard conditions it is the filmmakers who have to pay high fees for tens of licenses to establish production companies or to shoot or screen a film. Meanwhile state funds go towards numerous film festivals, never towards production, then the authorities complain there are not enough Egyptian films in those festivals!”
Lotfy herself has been trying to secure funds for her next film since 2015, but even established filmmakers, she says, are having problems: “Look at the late, prominent director Ousama Fawzi, who made four of the most important films in the Egyptian film history. He passed away in his 50s unable to secure funds for a film since 2004 when his last, I Love Cinema, was released. Isn’t this alarming in itself? Yes, you can make a film with the help of your friends but you can’t conjure up two million pounds out of their pockets if your film requires that money. And you keep losing great talents because they need to earn money by working in the market on anything but their films.”
It’s time for extreme measures, she feels. Younger filmmakers need to come up with a viable plan to get past the strictures of film funds and the compromises of commercial cinema.
“Our generation has a right to express itself through cinema that is not a copy of our great forebears’ or of Hollywood but which represents our vision and our sensibilities and ambitions. Now we have more small initiatives by aspiring filmmakers in Cairo and Alexandria which have produced some good films. So there is a hope. But without a collective plan being hopeful is not enough.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A meaningful profession.
For more arts and culture news and updates, follow Ahram Online Arts and Culture on Twitter at @AhramOnlineArts and on Facebook at Ahram Online: Arts & Culture